SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Newton Harrison told a small crowd at the University of California, Santa Cruz on Thursday night that art leaves no room for fear.
“You need to have a sort of spirited sense of engagement,” Harrison said. “There should be no place for fear in any of this, and there shouldn’t be any way to talk you out of it.”
The event, “Celebrating Helen and Newton Harrison – 45 Years of Ecological Art,” brought together artists, essayists, and academics to honor the Harrisons and the living legacy of their work.
Anne Spirn is a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technolog. She said the Harrisons’ work crosses boundaries.
“Every work is a research project, a work of art, and a call to action,” she said. “Collectively the work is really breathtaking and inspiring.”
The Harrisons recently published a book documenting their collaboration, titled The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years the Counterforce is on the Horizon. Spirn contributed to the book, along with Bill Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art.
Fox opened the event with a lecture situating the Harrisons within a larger movement he calls the “art of the anthropocene.”
“Artists react to the spread of the human footprint in a lot of different ways,” Fox said. “We like to think we have choices in this matter.”
Next, Spirn spoke of the importance of scale in the Harrisons’ work, which she said always starts with the same question: How big is here?
“You think in terms of systems. You think in terms of processes at work. And at what scale?” she said. “You have to know at what scale you have to act.”
Without an understanding of scale, Spirn said, it is only possible to address symptoms, not causes.
Lorrie Palmer teaches art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She said the Harrisons’ work has changed the way we think about art because it has changed the way we think about the world.
“Their work creates new ways to think on a scale that is very hard to think in,” Palmer said.
Harrison said he never knows the scale of a project going into it. Instead, he tries to listen to the places he visits.
“It’s hard to say how you find the size,” he said. “You just ask the questions and start observing, and eventually it impinges on you. And then you listen.”
Going in to every project with a plan “would be moronic,” Harrison said. “That’s what the worst bureaucrats do. They’re making insurance against future difficulties, but I think future difficulties are good fun.”
As artists, he said he and Helen became “disciplinarily indifferent” early on. Their dialogic processes developed out of Helen’s research into the ways chemical systems interact with one another.
“About art, the key issue is freedom to improvise,” Harrison said. “It’s okay to hack around.”